Brad Stevens, Boston and the Latest Chapter in Celtics-Sixers

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There are moments in which I wish I could tie every college basketball coach to a chair and make them watch game films of Brad Stevens. The games could be from when he was putting up that remarkable run at Butler, or they could be from his consistently successful tenure with the Boston Celtics. This would have nothing to do with Xs and Os. It would have everything to do with PO’d—or the conspicuous lack thereof. As he did at Butler, Stevens manages to get his Celtic team to play with an admirable combination of intelligence and toughness, and he manages to do it without acting like a raving lunatic on the sidelines.

(One friend of mine told me a story of one game he was at when Stevens was coaching at Butler and the calls were going against the Bulldogs. My friend watched as Stevens slowly went volcanic until he finally blew. “BALONEY!” Stevens hollered. Half of Indianapolis probably felt a shiver and didn’t know why.)

“Well, we felt like we saw some more openings open up in Game 6. In the second half of Game 6 we actually got to the rim and they weren’t all there to block it,” Stevens said, after the Celtics had put away the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night, 112–96, in the deciding seventh game of their first-round playoff series. “You know, Games 3 and 4 made us kind of change how we wanted to play once we got to the rim, and then by Game 6 I felt like we could get to the rim and score a little bit more again. You know, we balanced kicking out with scoring at the rim much better today, probably the best we did all series, which is a good thing.”

No muss. No fuss. Onto what should be a very entertaining series with Philadelphia, an encounter with deep historical resonance for these two franchises, going back to the dynastic Celtics of the 1960s and moving forward to the memorable games in the 1980’s, one of which famously featured the sight of Larry Bird and Julius Erving trying to throttle each other. This scene was surpassed in that period only by the night in 1983 when Boston general manager Red Auerbach came out of the stands to confront Moses Malone at midcourt. And I will wager something substantial that, if he one day runs an NBA front office, Brad Stevens will not do something like this.

“They’re playing great. Got a great team, great coach. I think everybody talks about (Joel) Embiid and (Ben) Simmons and rightfully so, but I think it’s—a lot—the skill that they’ve added to their team and their other young guys getting better, you know,” Stevens said of the series beginning Monday night. “Obviously (J.J.) Redick’s presence have just opened everything up. And they’re a bear to play against; you can tell from the last series. I think (Head Coach) Brett (Brown)’s terrific. They’re terrific.”

On Saturday night, the Celtics routed Milwaukee with approximately half the team they expected to have by the time this year’s playoffs rolled around. They’ve been missing Gordon Hayward for 81-and-three-quarters games this year. Kyrie Irving was lost to the team for the season at the beginning of April. Marcus Smart missed a great chunk of the late season. Shortly before halftime of Game 7, Jaylen Brown pulled a hamstring and was unavailable for the rest of the game.

In their place, Boston got a magnificent performance from Al Horford, who scored 26 points on a night when the Celtics shredded Milwaukee in what Hubie Brown calls “The Painted Area,” scoring 60 points inside. Horford was joined by two of the young guns that the Celtics have come to rely on more and more; point guard Terry Rozier, who has made a leap in his third year, and Jayson Tatum, who has matured at a ridiculously accelerated rate. Tatum’s nine points were vital to a first quarter spurt that pushed Boston to its first working margin, and Rozier sank several three-pointers in the fourth quarter to close the game out. But perhaps the most remarkable example of how Stevens and his players have refashioned their team was the game put up by Semi Ojeleye.

At the beginning of the season, Ojeleye was a second-round pick out of SMU, having bounced there after playing two seasons at Duke. Ojeleye’s parents emigrated to Kansas from Nigeria and, in 2013, he was named the high-school player of the year. That got him to Duke, where he struggled for playing time before moving on to SMU, where he was the American Conference player of the year in his last season. He entered the draft last year and, after a strong performance at the combine, Ojeleye was picked up by the Celtics. At 6’7″ and 235 pounds, Ojeleye developed into a strong defensive presence and, on Saturday, Stevens started him, hoping Ojeleye would be at least a partial solution to Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

Ojeleye proved to be more than that. He held Antetokounmpo to a rather mild 22 points and he enabled the Celtics to play a smaller lineup that ran the rest of the Bucks into the parquet. Antetokounmpo found himself bumped and jostled by Ojeleye every time he tried to bully his way to the basket, which proved just enough to keep him from dominating the middle. If Giannis settled for a short jump shot, so be it. “We have to kind of live with those shots and just try to make it tough on him,” Ojeleye said.

“That’s why I said Semi, to me, changed the series,” Al Horford said. “The job he did was unbelievable. Giannis is such a great player. His ability to take the challenge and be able to hold his own gave me extra energy on the offensive end. I really needed it … I’m just proud of him. All year he’s been working really hard. He’s probably the hardest worker on our team. He just stayed with it. He definitely got rewarded.”

That Ojeleye was prepared for this assignment is another measure of Stevens’s ability to find a purpose for every member of his roster. By contrast, Milwaukee coach Joe Prunty’s substitution patterns were well-nigh psychedelic. Jason Terry got minutes, and so did Shabazz Muhammad, to the absolute consternation of everyone watching the game. (I kept waiting for Jon McLaughlin and Bobby Dandridge to get a shift.) Neither Terry nor Muhammad was as ready for their close-up as Ojeleye was.

Philadelphia had its injuries early. Now, though, the Sixers have won 21 of their last 22 games, and had a 16-game winning streak coming into the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Celtics will not have Brown for the first game, and the whole series likely pivots on his availability. Unlike Milwaukee, Philadelphia has two serious stars—Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid—with whom the Celtics must contend. Horford has had a good year guarding Embiid, so we may well see more of Ojeleye, as well as more of top-knot supertanker Aron Baynes to create a swath of chaos down low. Philadelphia coach Brett Brown can’t wait to attach this series to the rest of the Wilt-Russell, Bird-Doc, Red-Moses extravaganzas of the past.

“I can’t wait. You grew up watching Celtics-Sixers rivalries and saw incredible games when I was young,” Brown said. “Even during my Boston University days, and to now be a part of that in the NBA playoffs in the semifinals and going back to Boston and the Boston Garden, absolutely, there is an element of nostalgia.”

No doubt there will be moments in the series that will harken back to the NBA’s wild west period, all those smoky nights in the old Garden or Convention Hall in Philadelphia, from which the Warriors left for the West Coast to be replaced by the 76ers. Wilt went with them and then came back, and lost to Russell in both places. Now the Warriors are a modern dynasty and both the 76ers and the Celtics are young, rising teams, freighted with history, but liberated by it, too. Nobody walks that line better than Brad Stevens has since coming to Boston, all baloney aside.

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